Deep-rooted grief comforted by a place of simple beauty (Maine, 1947 – 1965): How would you define a literary​ masterpiece? Would you think it over-the-top to characterize an author’s first novel as a masterpiece? These questions are asked because Beneficence​ ​moves us with so much pathos and so much grace and beauty, and it’s Meredith Hall’s debut novel. 

Years from now, Beneficence is one of those novels that sticks with you. Not in the details, but in the rendering of a once-upon-a-time, happy family of five, the Senters, who suffered for at least ten, fourteen years, from profound grief, which stays inside them forever. 

In 1988, Princeton University convened a forum to consider the literary questions posed. What’s reported doesn’t provide conclusive answers, art is so subjective anyway, but a couple of things stand out: “it would be a shame not to read” the book, if it “lays claim to universality and is therefore a lesson in humanity.” By this standard alone, Beneficence is a literary feat. 

Elsewhere, googling, you’ll find references about the power of the prose to affect us emotionally, including triggering feelings about beauty. This too, fits Hall’s first novel.

Along the internet way, I discovered a word that describes someone who loves beauty: philocalist. Some Senters, and the author based on her memoir discussed below, sense beauty as something sacred and blessed. “We are blessed with the gift of loving this beauty” is a remarkable spirit in a novel about a family coming apart, from a tragic accident. We may attribute this outlook to something spiritual, mystical, but the novel attributes it to a “willingness to believe in some sort of goodness.”

A strong sense of place — a “handsome” yet “simple” dairy-farm in Maine, and the northern land it encompasses — offers beneficence.

Hall’s debut novel was so compelling, I felt compelled to read her memoir written in 2008, Without A Map, ​which is as gorgeously written and profoundly moving. Beneficence shines all by itself, but packaged with her memoir it provides insight into the depth of her personal losses that enables her fictional artistry. 

Like Beneficence, ​Hall’s memoir is stunning in the intensity and longevity of unbearable grief, guilt, shame, loneliness, abandonment, and yearning for forgiveness. Hall’s “hunger for love” led to becoming pregnant at sixteen, then mercilessly was thrown out of her childhood home and her divorced father’s home, by parents she loved. “Shunned,” homeless, and destitute, somehow she never lost her deep appreciation of life and nature’s beauty. She’s injected this gift into her fictional family. 

Hall’s real life trauma is entwined into her fictional trauma, even in the novel’s setting. We’re told Beneficence ​takes place in Alstead, Maine, but the town doesn’t seem to exist; Alstead, New Hampshire does. New Hampshire is where Hall’s universe collapsed, and now the Senters fall apart in the same town. 

Forced to abandon her newborn, whom Hall wasn’t even permitted to see, she descended into an “encompassing sorrow” that devolved into her “private and interior devastation.” This is precisely what happens to the Senters, most dysfunctionally to Doris, the loving mother of three children who loses one, emotionally abandoning her family for years. “The grief I carry every single day has burrowed deep,” Hall wrote in her memoir, the same devastation Doris feels; Tup, her husband, too but differently. Of course, the children are also impacted.

In Without A Map, ​Hall still wants to “absorb all the wisdom and beauty of the human soul,” which is extraordinary after what she went through. Again, she wants all the sadness of Beneficence to be infused with this quality of sensitivity.

Motherhood is far-reaching, all-inclusive, as seen through the voices of three of the four remaining family members: Doris, Tup, and their only daughter, Dodie, whose forced to mother the son who survived; assume the domestic duties; and take on a greater share of the farmwork at roughly the same age the author was thrown into adulthood. 

Since neither sons’ voice tells their perspective, the reader won’t find out whether it’s Sonny, the eldest, or Beston/Best, the youngest, who is the buried child until the end of Part One, Before​. 

The Maine farm, passed down from five generations, brings joy despite the story being told after the Depression and the end of WWII. Joy is for the simple yet meaningful and beautiful things in life, which readers are mourning and thinking about during these historically traumatic times. For all the blessedness that runs through the Before chapters, Doris’ words on page one are foreboding, saying, “I was the one who was supposed to keep an eye on the children.” 

Doris has a desperate need for forgiveness. But she’s not the only one seeking forgiveness, because no one is actually sure what happened in fleeting moments that consume lives. Doris’ withdrawal results in Dodie’s heroic and painful persistence, emphasizing that Dodie has lost her youth like Hall did. 

A major difference between fact and fiction is that the Senters are tethered to and committed to one physical place, whereas Hall spent years wandering the globe. The farmhouse has a comforting, “lived-in” feeling, while Hall had no place to even shelter in. The theme of Home looms large and essential. The farm is thriving from plenty of hard, “good work,” but no matter how hard Hall’s life descends, or the goodness in her heart, she has to sell the clothes on her back to eat, barely. Tup’s love for his distraught wife regardless of his sacrifices over the years, echoes some of the helplessness Hall endured. 

Cycling through the seasons on the farm serves as a “rescue of order” against all that’s “aching sweet and unbearable.” The Maine farm is this family’s map​, the map ​Meredith Hall spent years without. 

We’re relieved Hall’s life finally turned around. At age forty-four, she graduated college; found her own family to love; taught creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. After all the years of pain and suffering, can the Senters move on? 

Seeking the answer to that question keeps you turning pages, but make no mistake it’s the simple eloquence of the prose that compels you on, reflecting how I felt compelled to read Without A Map ​after inhaling Beneficence. 

Once Hall was without a map, there was only a Before and After. Fictionally, she stretches out the rawness and endurance of grief, adding more Parts: During​, After​, and Here​. Throughout the sorrow, Hall’s characters are washed over by “a quiet sort of peace.” She’s created people who believe “there is nothing more elegant than the head of a white-tail deer.” Who, when they allow themselves to take a break, go ice skating and can still enjoy “the feeling of ice carved by our skates with a rasping swoosh . . . skimming smoothly and effortlessly into the light.” 

The comfort of light is expressed repeatedly — the “the soft light of home,” the “dawn light in the kitchen calling us to the next day,” the “low morning light.” Characters who are, or were, able to be in the moment. 

Wisdom comes in accepting that “we ride this planet with all its sorrow and all its love and all its beauty and all its hard mysteries.” That “the great price of love and attachment is loss.” And to keep reminding ourselves “every day is a gift.”


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Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal

The unique relationship between people and horses (Manhattan and East Hampton, Long Island, and elsewhere in the US and other countries; late 70s to present-day): ​“Horses are the perfect foil, partner, and complement to humankind,” says Sarah Maslin Nir, an award-winning investigative journalist for ​The New York Times. ​“Horses are freedom,” she explains intimately, describing the magnitude of why horses have meant so much to her. At the heart and soul of her being ​horse crazy.

“After I file each story, I do one thing before I head home: I search for horses. The rider in me wants to gaze at them, stroke them, gallop with them, but the reporter in me has only one goal: to know their stories.” 

That’s what Nir does in her engaging and heartfelt memoir ​Horse Crazy: ​tell their stories. Chapters are “named after a horse who told me its story or helped me write my own.” Her memoir, though, is not a collection of separate stories, rather, they form a picture of a passionate, dedicated, hardworking thirty-seven-year-old seasoned reporter whose life has been infinitely buoyed by the horses she’s ridden, cared for, leased, trained, owned, and met. 

Each story is interesting, informative, eloquent. Some are especially poignant; others reveal little-known facts and history; and some are eye-opening and cringe-worthy, like the unethical and cruel practices of the $25 billion horse-racing world. Going beyond the personal, Nir takes us inside the larger world of horses, often told through the lens of an animal rights activist. 

You may know of Nir through her groundbreaking, investigative series that unearthed the “rampant exploitation” of Asian manicurists in NYC’s nail salon industry. A finalist for the Pulitzer-Prize because of it, her reporting changed lives through legislation. 

The most unexpected and gripping story cannot be told in one chapter. On nearly every page, in one way or another, you feel its presence, absence, influence. This is Nir’s famous father’s story, Yehuda Nir, a Holocaust survivor. The extent his story impacted her feelings about horses is memorable.

Yehuda Nir was so busy and sought-after as the head of Child Psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, his daughter couldn’t spend nearly enough time with him. A child psychiatrist, Jewish and born in Poland, he passed away five years ago. His memoir, ​The Lost Childhood, is apparently used to teach high school students about the victimization of Jews during WWII. When the war ended, it was a horse-drawn carriage that carried him (and some of his family; his father was executed) to freedom. He turned his trauma into something good: treating seriously ill children (and their overwhelmed parents) for post-traumatic stress disorder before it was called that. 

Nir’s mother, Bonnie Maslin, wasn’t at home much either, notably during a formative period in her life. A school psychologist, she frequently appeared on talk shows like Phil Donahue’s and Oprah, discussing self-help topics about families and marriages she wrote four books on, along with her husband. In many chapters, especially this chapter in her life, you can feel Nir’s loneliness when she tells us she saw her mother more on the TV screen than in real life. 

Describing her childhood as “outsourced to nannies,” the author felt very much an outsider (like her father did), including at an exclusive Upper East Side private school in NYC, where she managed to find horses in surprising places. She didn’t feel she belonged anywhere until horses came into her life, filling her needs for companionship and a place for herself that brought her peace and freedom. 

Given both Nir’s parents were psychologically trained, she takes a psychological perspective analyzing why she loves horses SO much. Sometimes feeling “deep survivor’s guilt” for discovering the horse world compared to the “atrocities” her father dealt with. 

An important influence on her life was her nanny Beverly, who came from Jamaica and worked hard to achieve the American Dream. Internalizing that meant Nir “felt the importance of untold stories of everyday heroism that shaped our lives.” 

Thanks to Beverly, Nir spent countless hours at the American Museum of Natural History, among “seventy-thousand horses . . . iterations of their ancestors galloping backward through 50 million years of time.” Aspects of her museum education are here: the “Dawn Horse,” “the modern horse,” horses painted in cave dwellings in France; the dependence of indigenous Native tribes on horses. 

Guernsey is the first horse chapter, because this horse was the first Nir sat on when she was two. Undeterred when she fell off of it, the experience was pivotal. Amigo was the first horse Nir owned, at twelve. (She’s owned five.) 

A chapter named Breyers is a collector’s craze you probably haven’t heard of, unless you’re an obsessed horse lover who cannot afford a real one, or a young child who plays with plastic toy horses. The company that makes them has been around since the ’50s, the Breyer Molding Company. Sometime later they created Breyers Animal Creations. It wasn’t until 1989 that they launched BreyerFest, “the Lollapoolza of the model horse world,” bringing collectors to Lexington, Kentucky, as if it were the Kentucky Derby! What makes this annual event ​crazy ​is it’s for adults not just starry-eyed children. Last year, Nir reports, 30,000 competitors came to the Fest; and “over a million Breyer model horses are sold each year.”

The Misty chapter is named after the legendary round-up of wild ponies on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which the children’s book ​Misty of Chincoteague ​is based on. In Nir’s animal activist’s eyes, you’ll see this annual tradition quite differently than publicized.

Chincoteague Pony Swim
by Bonnie U. Gruenberg via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA]

Billy is a performance horse she met at the annual Viennese Opera Ball held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. If you’re wondering how horses could make their way to the ballroom, Nir entertains us with that history. Master David is the horse her oldest brother owned for a brief time trying to make it big in thoroughbred racing. The story brings out how age differences (twenty-four in this case) contribute to the lack of closeness and common interests between siblings, how you can still feel very much alone in a larger family. It also brings out the mistreatment of horses for big money. There’s another chapter about a race horse, Willow, in which Nir’s connection to him runs deep. He was the horse she jumped to championship victory. Also the horse that injured her so badly she was told she could never ride again. “Willow was the seat of my highest equestrian glory and my lowest low.” Nir’s a fighter who gets back on horses, since “everything looks better on a horse.” 

There’s also Snowman, Shader, Samson, Adonis, Trendy, Tango. Guide horses, therapy horses, Belgian draft workhorses, and a “rare” native breed from India, the Marwari, heavily protected. The timeliest story is about a black cowboy from Texas, another example of racism in America, this one involving horses:

“Historians and Hollywood have erased black cowboys from their rightful place among the sunset and the sagebrush and the Western vistas of our mind.” 

Horse Crazy ​is not just for horse-lovers. It’s for anyone who has a heart.


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Eat a Peach

Searingly honest memoir about defying the obstacles (New York City, 2004 to present, and other cities in the US, Australia, Japan; backstory Northern VA): If “the most compelling stories are the ones about people on a quest complicated by impossible obstacles” (see Resilience, Courage, and Hope – Getting Through Hard Times), then by that standard alone, David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach is “most compelling.”

Chang is a world renowned, break-the-mold chef who founded the Momofuku “Asian-influenced egalitarian” restaurant chain that defies categorization. Innovative dishes that mix Asian and non-Asian (Italian, Mexican) foods, so please don’t call his cuisine Asian-fusion, he says. One of many things Chang takes pains to make sure we know – culinary and more broadly about the challenges of being Korean American, and someone dealing with manic-depression. 

Chang is the real deal. Not what you might expect from a forty-two year old man who created an Empire, making his memoir different than you might expect. A give-it-all-you’ve-got and then some spirit breaking expectations and stereotypes, reflecting the same gusto he gives to his craft.

In 2004, Chang opened his first Momofuku restaurant: a Noodle Bar in the East Village in Manhattan with minimalist décor but high energy, cooking in front of diners, creating dishes with smells and tastes people never smelled or tasted before. As Chang tells it, there was nothing like it before.

So you might expect that the winner of the most coveted cooking awards in the world – James Beard, Michelin, World’s 50 Best Restaurants – a man named by Esquire as “one of the most influential people of the 21st century”, along with Time magazine calling him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World – would be full-of-himself. Yet Chang does everything he can to try to convince us he doesn’t deserve the success he’s achieved. Commendable that he wants to express how much he owes to his extraordinarily talented and loyal staff. But it’s not due to modesty. It’s incredible honesty. 

Over and over, he tells us that he’s not the man you think he is. That he got to where he is on a fluke. Cooking was the one thing he “didn’t hate doing,” nor failed at. No matter how hard he tries – and he tries harder than most – he ends up showing us why he deserves the accolades. Compelling, because he seems like one of the most honest people in the world.

David Chang has traveled the world, to “gather from everywhere.” “I wanted to know why people liked what they liked.” His first trip was to Japan, eye-opening as it inspired the idea of preparing food for everyone to see, then used “the dining room as a classroom” to observe whether they liked what they ate. Borrowing and adapting is why he says his cuisine is not “authentic.” At least he agrees that what he ends up serving is one-of-a-kind, but for someone whose gone as far as opening a “culinary lab” in NYC to experiment with ingredients like a scientist, he doesn’t give himself enough credit for never resting on his laurels.

The more self-effacing, the more the author sounds like someone suffering from Impostor Syndrome. No, he believes he’s suffering “survivor’s guilt.”

Surviving a childhood marked by failures in school, bright but not bright enough for one of the nation’s top-ranked high schools in Northern Virginia where he grew up. Surviving the negative impact of “tiger parenting,” he wants us to know not all Asians are academic powerhouses.

Chang is, though, a powerhouse. An ultra-perfectionist, he made himself into one.

Eat a Peach isn’t singularly focused on the culinary arts, which in his case relies on vision, leadership, teamwork, unrelenting eighteen-hour work days, with encyclopedic knowledge of the history of great chefs and what makes a great chef. (An Appendix, 33 Rules for Becoming a Chef, earnestly boils down “usable” advice.) He’s also well-read outside culinary circles, so you’ll also get a flood of philosophical thoughts, and “various cultural truths” about Korean-Americans, most of which he doesn’t agree with. He recognizes that what he has to say about his culture may be offensive, but it fits with his fierce honesty.

Chang does believe in a “Korean emotion” called han, which he describes as:

“some combination of strife or unease, sadness, and resentment, born from the many historical injustices and indignities endured by our people. It’s a term that came into use after the Japanese occupation of Korea, and it describes this characteristic sorrowness and bitterness that Koreans seem to possess wherever they are in the world. It is transmitted from generation to generation and defines much of the art, literature, and cinema that comes out of Korean culture.”

Chang is an eloquent and thoughtful writer. It would be remiss, then, not to point out he’s also a frequent user of profanity. He knows it, and works to tone down his anger. How can someone be so angry having achieved so much?

Chang is intense. He feels injustices, suffers deeply. Complex emotions, like his complex cuisine. Emotions – “my personal brand of rage” – are key to his success. “I think the job – the fear, the stress, the habits I’d learned, the culture – unlocked what was already inside me.”

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Chang was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Clinical depression zaps your energy so badly you can’t even get out of bed, yet Chang is the definition of a workaholic.) His editor wanted him to avoid discussing it, reminding us mental illness is still a stigma. That’s not who Chang is, so he tells us right from the get-go.

In a striking and seductive Prologue, he uses an interesting and effective vehicle for introducing himself in five pages. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the memoir’s editorial process. The cover design is described in detail, with images, as to what went behind it. He did not want his picture on the cover, nor draw attention to his name. Printed in pale white, we focus on how he perceives himself as a tiny man in the universe pushing a gigantic peach up a mountain, conjuring the image of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. The peach is also significant, as the meaning of Momofuku in Japanese is “juicy peach.” 

Not a tiny life, that’s for sure. Besides his numerous, wildly successful restaurants around the globe, he’s authored two bestselling cookbooks and created a Netflix documentary series called Ugly Delicious that fans anxiously await news it’s been renewed for a third season. 

After surviving some do-or-die restaurant experiences, he came up with the idea of a daily email system with his staff – The Roundtable. We’re treated to many examples of how everyone was brought into the loop on every detail no matter how small or “crazy;” how much he encouraged new ideas; what it means to lead regardless of the obstacles; how magical it feels when it all comes together; and how beautiful it is when a leader treats his team like family.

David Chang may sound like someone who doesn’t like himself all that much, but we do. We like his tell-it-like-it-feels prose, full of his inventiveness, perseverance, and yes, authenticity, wanting to be the best he can be. 

How will COVID-19 affect his restaurants? He’s closed two, but he’s a survivor with tremendous creativity. The memoir makes us feel he’ll climb these new, formidable mountains, help lead the way.


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The Nesting Dolls

The trauma of Russian Jewish oppression passed down five generations (Odessa, Ukraine and a Siberian labor camp, USSR, 1931 to 1975; Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, 2019): The catchy title of Russian-American Alina Adams’ sweeping historical family tale comes from the brightly painted, wooden Russian female dolls ranging in size from larger to smaller, each fitting inside another. Representing motherhood, they also represent four of the five Russian Jewish female characters, all mothers from different generations of a single family, in the Nesting Dolls. 

The doll/character who doesn’t fit comfortably is the smallest/youngest one: Zoe, the protagonist, twenty-something-ish, single, childless. She’s not supposed to fit easily as she’s the modern-day character, half-in and half-out, having trouble fitting in with the Old World and a Russian-born-in-America’s new one. The older women’s stories help explain why.

Could anyone other than a gifted writer born in Odessa, Ukraine – like three of the five generations of women in Adams’ novel – who immigrated with her family to America in the 1970s when a wave of Russian Jews were able to escape their Communist “prison country” – be able to craft such an emotionally authentic Russian Jewish historical novel? By the time you reach the final page “About the Author,” you’re likely to think maybe no one could.

By definition, a novel that chronicles a family over a period in time is a sub-genre of fiction called a family saga. The Nesting Dolls easily fits that descriptor. Chronicling the Russian Jewish experience reaches far beyond that.

A whip-smart, four-page Prologue introduces four generations (the first generation is no longer alive). If your brain is like mine, you may find the familial names/relationships a bit confusing. Please don’t put this book down, thinking you’ll return to it when your mind is clearer. Because as soon as the novel opens in 1931 with Daria’s incredible Odessa-to-Siberian labor camp journey, you’ll be mesmerized. Reading what it was like to have “no rights, only obligations” will be painfully clear.

One more caveat: please don’t think all five generational stories are as deathlike and soulless as Daria’s, although the three women born in Odessa had “lived in the dread.” Rather, it’s how the scars from their experiences got passed down to Zoe, that provoke the question, Can you ever escape the trauma of persecution?

To get you past the brilliant, enigmatic Prologue that you’ll return to some 250 pages later when it makes perfect sense, below are the characters’ names and relationships to Zoe, because that’s how the reader must understand them.

First Generation Daria: Zoe’s great-great grandmother. Born Dvora Kaganovitch. Hers is the longest story. Chapter 1 opens with Daria just married to Edward Gordon, a famous pianist “too privileged, too genteel” for the bleak, harsh Soviet system. Traveling the world to give concerts made him a suspect, an enemy of the State. Truth is all you had to do was act like an “individual above the collective” to be viewed as a traitor, especially if you were a Jew. The newlyweds lived with Edward’s father and were watched over by a giant of a man, Adam. There’s even a Russian word for him: dvornik. He watches their “comings and goings” at their “crumbling” apartment building. Adam is the reason Daria ends up in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

Kommunalka is Russian for communal living. Four generations of these women lived that way. No privacy, and always feeling like someone will turn them into the authorities. Zoe is the outlier again, the only one living alone. But she stays close to the other three generations living together in Brighton Beach, a Brooklyn enclave where Russian Jews immigrated to.

Second Generation Alyssa: Zoe’s great-grandmother, in her eighties. Also referred to as Balissa and Baba. Zoe’s story kicks off in the Prologue in the apartment the three women share, with an ignored man, Deda, Alyssa’s husband. Zoe’s there to help pull off Baba’s forty-fifth anniversary party, but Baba doesn’t want one. Her daughter, Julia, Zoe’s mother who lives with them, insists they do. No one knows why Baba is adamantly against it. Her secret unravels for us. At the end, at the party, glimpsed by everyone who quietly gasp. 

The party isn’t the only thing Baba is negative about. It’s everything, because she was with Daria in that brutal labor camp. The product of “terrible child-rearing,” she mostly blames the “entire political system of the USSR.” Today, this survivor is a silent, bitter soul, but through it all she’s maintained her dignity.

Third Generation Natasha: Alyssa’s daughter. Zoe’s grandmother or Baba. Born Natalia Nikolayevna. Blame is carried down: she blames her mother for doing nothing about “a genocidal regime.” “The Jewish problem” in the USSR meant she was denied entry into the university to study math, which she deserved. She shared an apartment with another family: Boris’. He’s accepting and focused on “commonplace things,” the complete opposite of Natasha, who inherits her mother’s bitterness and yearns to do something meaningful with her life. What could be more meaningful, and dangerous, than getting mixed up with a mission “to expose how the Soviet system brutalizes its people”? 

Fourth Generation Julia: Zoe’s mother. Divorced. A “soft-spoken, conflict-adverse peacemaker,” unlike Julia’s mother Natasha.

Fifth Generation Zoe: Also called Zoya. Born Zoyenka. Confused about many things. Doesn’t want to dwell in the past. She’s the one who wants what we want: happiness and joy, in a career and romance, but that conflicts with what her family believes is best. An example of how this doll/ character is stuck in the in-between: “When I date American guys, I feel like I don’t fit in with them, and when I date Russian guys, I feel like they don’t fit in with me.”

There are many ways to describe the novel. One is that it’s a clarion call to activism, reminding us that “change can come only through action.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, it’s rare to uncover family records of Russian Jews as they simply don’t “exist”. So another way to describe what Alina Adams has most notably done is uncover one family’s record that feels awfully true.


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Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life

Finding happiness where you’d least expect to (Rockaway Beach, New York, 2010 – 2017): Inspiration can be found in surprising places. So you don’t have to be a surfer, an athlete, a sports enthusiast, or a beach person to think of former New York Times reporter Diane Cardwell’s memoir, Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life, as a motivational tool for all of us wanting to, or needing to, pick up the pieces of a life gone awry. Extraordinarily timely.

During the seven years Cardwell tips-her-toes in, then goes headstrong all in, to dramatically change her high-pressured New York City lifestyle into a more carefree surfing life on Long Island – a “roll-with-the-swells life” – she was a journalist who covered numerous beats: politics, business, the arts, entertainment, hospitality, the real estate industry.

Prior to 2010 – when her story begins after a reporting assignment in Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, that got her fantasizing about a life around beaches and surfers – she’d been the Times Bureau Chief to Mayor Bloomberg’s office; journalism fellow at Stanford University; and a founder of Vibe magazine, and other writerly endeavors.

So up until forty-five, she wasn’t that laid-back, riding the waves person. She’d grown up in a household where “achievement was the reigning narrative,” and yes, she’d achieved a great deal. Her transformation, a different kind of achievement, is a delight to read.

Inherent in that high-achiever focus was believing “failure would not be an option.” Which is what makes Cardwell’s story so powerful and inspiring. After she found herself learning how to live after a marriage that seemed destined not to fail ended in divorce and childless, finding herself terribly lonely, living alone for the first time in twenty-years, having felt she’d failed at achieving her dreams, she then undertook surfing. Which meant she then chose to take on failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment, to learn a sport that may look “simple” but is anything but.

No matter how many teachers she sought out, first at Montauk’s Ditch Plains prime surfing spot, at Rockaway Beach, and after all the muscle-aching fitness training she had to do to develop the strength needed to paddle the waves (like standing up on the surfing board or pop up in “surf-speak,” a lingo that runs throughout that sounds like another language), she learned surfing is a formidable sport. It’s one thing to learn on sand, quite another in the ocean.

Rockaway shows us what happens when you set your mind, body, and heart to achieve what may seem impossible. The author went from being a “daytripper” to a full-time resident. She took her time making this all-important decision, but when she spotted a charming, century-old bungalow among three others overlooking a garden they shared in Rockaway, she fell instantly in love with it. Bought it despite much financial angst; then renovated, furnished, and adorned it with “sea glass decorations” without hemming-and-hawing.

To see the author and her surfboard, her bungalow and community garden, Rockaway beaches, streets, and shops, this article she recently contributed to the Times gives you a good picture, though the memoir’s expressive prose already does that.

Not surprising, the author writes with a reporter’s eye for detail and a water-lover’s heart, with the warmth and friendliness of someone you’d like to hang out. It’s hard to pick out one paragraph that doesn’t meet those descriptors, but for all who’ve never been to Rockaway, an outpost in the borough of Queens on Long Island, here’s how she describes the coastal area:

“If you imagine the entirety of Long Island as a giant fish, with Brooklyn and Queens as the head swooping underneath Manhattan and the Bronx toward Staten Island and New Jersey to the southwest, its body and tail would stretch one hundred miles northeast into the Atlantic. Montauk would sit at the southeastern tip of its tail, and the Rockaway Peninsula would form the bottom of its jaw, with Jamaica Bay filling its open mouth.”

Cardwell’s grit, perseverance, passion, courage, resilience, and authenticity led her to find the kind of belongingness she hadn’t felt before. The friends she knew and makes in this surfing community left her “dumbstruck.” “I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a secret tribe of magical creatures – fairies and nymphs frolicking in a hidden bay.”

If not for Cardwell’s inner strengths and the friendships and camaraderie of surfers she might not have survived an “extratropical” catastrophe: Hurricane Sandy. Expect to read about weather conditions, meteorological predictions, the science of waves and tides, as this reporter made sure she understood what she was dealing with. 

Another aspect of the author’s childhood instrumental to her surfing story is that she spent happy summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So while Cardwell has fears and insecurities she doesn’t fear the ocean, though respects its power. Most of the time she’s in awe of it, although a Prologue opens the memoir with an event in 2013 when she realized she’d gone too far out, beyond the “outside.”

Cardwell’s gumption and discipline is impressive, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t stop questioning herself. “Why do I always have to be this way?”What am I doing wrong?” And yet, when she experiences a fleeting moment riding a wave, she feels a “rush”: “a “powerful high – cosmic, euphoric, liberating, addictive.” Overcome by the beauty and freedom she feels. 

As someone born and raised in Queens, whose parents were one of those daytrippers to Rockaway Beach, the memoir is nostalgic of days gone by, although this “frontier” started to change in the early 2000s.

Surfing boards have evolved into works of art. The beginner board is not pretty, designed for safety at the expense of fast. So you’re in for a treat when the author feels ready to buy a sexy, new, faster board. Expect lively descriptions of longboards and shortboards. 

The residents of Rockaway Beach were considered “hipsters.” After Hurricane Sandy, they became “helpsters.” Rockaway pays tribute to some of the “toughest” people Cardwell says she’s known. 

If you’re life feels stuck, Diane Cardwell shows us it doesn’t have to be that way. A phrase we’ve been hearing a lot lately about COVID-19. The message is that when we feel despair, Keep at it, Keep at it, Keep at it. Eventually, happier and freer days will come. For Cardwell, this meant discovering “a place where a lot of people constructed their lives around their lives . . . rather than trying to shoehorn a little happiness in between all the obligations.”

As America gropes its way through a flashing-red-light catastrophe on so many levels, Rockaway is a must read.

PS You can see more pictures of Diane Cardwell’s new life on her website:


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